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Making Sense of Location-based Services

Making Sense of Location-based Services

Adena Schutzberg

See Also

I�ve been having a running conversation with Jim McGeough, the CEO of Digital Earth Systems, Inc. (DES), developer of GeoMode, a software-only locating system used to power location-based services (LBS). I�ll be the first to admit that the whole LBS arena has been daunting to understand. There are many players who all tout their wares but few who lay out what is needed to provide a complete solution. Mr. McGeough has been patient with me, and for the first time I feel like I have a sense of the categories of players out there. Of course some fall into two or more, but this classification clears things up nicely. 

The first category, LOCATION TECHNOLOGIES, refers to the companies and their respective tools that can locate a wireless device. Their job is to capture the location and covert it into some meaningful X,Y. The methods of doing that, in simple terms, number four. (1) Cell-id simply locates the nearest tower, and delivers a location within a few kilometers. Enhanced Cell-id can get a better fix. (2) E-OTD/TOA (Enhanced Observed TimeDifference/Time of Arrival) uses special transmitters, receivers and Rf signals (above and beyond those used to transmit the calls) to determine the distance of a device from several towers. Some straightforward math can then determine the location. It�s more accurate than �raw� Cell-id but someone (the carrier, and later, perhaps the user) must pay to put the new hardware up on all those towers. According to Mr. McGeough that method seemed like a great way to go back when the phone companies were doing well, but now presents quite a significant financial challenge. (3) GPS uses receivers integrated into the mobile device to communicate with the GPS satellite constellation. The challenges to GPS include dependence on satellites, increased price of handsets with the integrated GPS chip and possible signal availability issues in certain GPS restricted environments. (4) A software only approach pioneered by DES develops a mathematical model of signal strength in an area. After adding updates from ground truth data, the model predicts locations based on a device�s signal strength. Unlike E-OTD/TOA, it requires no additional hardware on the towers or in the phones and can be quite accurate. Other options combine one or more of these technologies in �hybrid� solutions to serve both coverage area variations as well as consumer preferences. Hybrid solutions may add the cost of both solutions to the overall price tag. 

The second category of player is LOCATION PLATFORM DEVELOPERS. Mr. McGeough describes the products of the these companies as �the middleware which connects the infrastructure management/billing systems to the applications and X,Y location provider. Platforms also provide API access to 3rd party developers so they can easily build applications without having to worry about the middleware/integration bits.� Mr. McGeough argues that �a true platform should a) support LBS applications from all sources and b) promote/support interoperability amongst multi-source applications. Additionally, a platform provider must take care of the back-end; the integration of their platform to the infrastructure - whether it�s the Internet or intranet or phone company environment, all of which should include billing and provisioning. Ideally, a platform provider should support the use of applications which extend across the enterprise in any industry.�I was curious about the role of this group based on MapInfo�s statement during last week�s earnings conference call that the company was far more interested in being a platform provider than an application developer. Will a GIS company like MapInfo really be interested in hosting applications from, say, ESRI? Perhaps not, but a more �pure� platform developer, like SignalSoft, is happy to work with ESRI (and others) and may find less direct competition since ESRI (and others) are only in the application business. 

The third category on the list is APPLICATION DEVELOPERS. One application of course, the one driving this whole industry, is E911. Other examples include routing, traffic information, telematics; these are the end user services. Autodesk, Intergraph (IntelliWhere), ESRI and others are aiming at the application side, though not necessarily at emergency services. From my perspective, this is the part of the story GIS companies understand the best. Still, those companies that are moving deeply into enterprise solutions � and thus know how to link up to existing business systems - may be ready to provide effective platforms. 

The final category in Mr. McGeough�s map of LBS is titled PROVISIONING. It includes data providers and consultants � those who complete the offering of the application developer. That category I see more tightly knit into the application developers since there are already long-standing relationships here. GDT, Navigation Technologies, TeleAtlas, PlanGraphics and ASI all have strong existing relationships with the GIS-turned LBS application developers. 

As I�ve suggested, exactly how many of these categories a company chooses to participate in varies. MapInfo seems to want to be both a platform and an application developer. They may also play a role in provisioning since they continue to be a data provider. Cambridge Positioning Systems provides applications and has its own location technology offering. Further, different partnerings from different categories are possible. DES, a location positioning technology provider, has partnered with LocatioNet, a platform developer. SignalSoft, a platform developer, has partnered with long lists of location technology, content, hardware, network, application and service providers (such as Cell-Loc, MapQuest, Geodan and SchlumbergerSema) to round out its offering. 

So, with all this technology, ingenuity, and an FCC mandate, why does the LBS marketplace appear to be stalled? 

The platform and application companies are waiting for the telcos to choose a positioning technology, all the while remaining �open.� McGeough refers to this as �agnostic.� He feels the waiting is slowing down the adoption of LBS. He argues that platform developers should do their homework, pick a location technology partner and start selling. 

The telco buyers of this technology are also challenged. After years of testing technology to meet the FCC E911 requirements, all but one carrier has requested and received an extension on implementation. GIS software vendors, data providers and consultants who chose to play in the above arenas stand to gain quite a lot when the LBS applications and services find their way to paying customers. 

Stay tuned. LBS is still in its infancy. 
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